Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012 In Review (ha-haa) and What 2013 Holds

Merry Christmas, everybody! With the whirlwind of Christmas-related activities I'm taking a mini-break from reviewing and most likely won't even finish a book this week, so since this is my last post of 2012 I decided to share what my favorites are for this year and what I'm planning for next year.

Drumroll please! Here is my top five of 2012:

 Body of Evidence by Patricia Cornwell  Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins  Still Alice by Lisa Genova  The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon  Quiet by Susan Cain

Now, onto the plan for 2013. Yes, there is a plan. There's even a spreadsheet (my friends keep giving me a hard time about those, but they're just so neat and handy I love them). First things first though: there will be a change in the schedule. As you know this year there was a review a week, on Sundays. Next year I've decided to read fewer books to give myself the time to do everything else in my life and not feel like a proverbial hamster in a wheel. Next year I'll be reviewing 2 books in three weeks and they're going to be meatier books.
Which brings me to the best part - the books. How did I come up with the list? Oh, it's a highly complex formula involving... Just kidding. I'm taking 5 books each from the NYT Best Seller list, NYT Children's Best Seller list, the list of books discussed on BBC World Book Club, 4 prize-winners from 2012, 10 titles we'll be reading in my book club and 5 spots are open for the inevitable times when nothing on the list, or shelf, will do. OCD is a curious thing, let me tell you. Anyway, here's the proposed reading list for your perusal, in alphabetical order. We'll see how many of these I will actually read. See you in the new year!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
Angela's Ashes
Anna Karenina
The Cat's Table
Dead End in Norvelt
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Fault in Our Stars
Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America
Gone Girl
The Grass is Singing
The Help
A House for Mr Biswas
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
The New York Trilogy
The Night Circus
The Round House

Olga's favorite books »

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Review: Thursday at Noon by William F. Brown

Cairo, 1962. Richard Thomson is already having a very bad day when someone leaves a corpse lying on his back steps. Its head had been lopped off like a ripe melon. Thomson is a burned out CIA Agent and the body belongs to Mahmoud Yussuf, a petty Cairo thief who tried to sell him photographs of a long-abandoned RAF base in the Egyptian desert. What the photos have to do with a dead Israeli Mossad agent, Nazi rocket scientists, the fanatical Moslem Brotherhood, and two missing Egyptian tank regiments could start the next Arab-Israeli War. Alone and on the run, no one believes Thomson’s answers - not the CIA, the US Ambassador, and most assuredly not Captain Hassan Saleh of the Homicide Bureau of the Cairo Police.

This is my second William Brown spy novel and I enjoyed it at least as much as Amongst My Enemies. Reading it was comforting, like stepping into a world I've visited before, and there are a few reasons for that.
Mr. Brown is in familiar territory in this novel: it is the years after WW2, the world is still recovering from the war and while everybody has been trying to forget about the Nazis they are still there and weaving their sinister plots. This time the action takes place in the Middle East, in Egypt to be precise, and the hero of the story, who seems to be Brown's "type" - a lone wolf with a painful past and the only one who sees the situation for what it is, is on his own in preventing a disaster.
This story is not exactly a mystery because from the very beginning it's clear who the bad guys are and what they are up to, although the full scope of their plans becomes increasingly clear as the book moves forward. Brown is very skilled at keeping up the pace by alternating the points of view of several major players, giving an insight into their characters and histories, and they are all very different and very interesting. In fact, the alternation of protagonists was my favorite thing about this book, it gave a fuller picture of what was going on and made the events and the characters seem more real. I particularly liked Captain Saleh, he is such a consummate professional and such a patriot, and he goes through the greatest transformation in this novel, greater even than Thomson.
While this book is not a philosophical treatise it does make one think about the fact that not all Middle Easterners are religious fanatics, not all of them are determined to wipe out everyone who isn't on the same page as them. In the light of the events of recent history that's a relevant subject to ponder, and considering that the book was first published in 1987 and is set in 1962 all the more thought-provoking. After all, novelists do get a lot of their material from the real world, even if everything about the story is fictional.
The only thing that I didn't enjoy about this book (and I really hate saying it, but it is what it is) is that my particular copy was in need of a thorough editor. This is a good book and I think it deserves to have a presentation that matches the content.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Favorite Sites: NPR Books

This year I've been paying more attention to what's going on in the book world and it's been really nice knowing what's going on, even a little bit. One of the websites I like to visit for some information and amusement is NPR Books. They have articles about and interviews with the latest movers and shakers, news, genres, curiosities, reviews and their own best-seller lists (don't know how they're generated but the fact remains).
NPR has a reputation for being pretty serious but I think that's because people don't give the NPRers a chance to show themselves from any other side. Take latest headlines, for instance: In 2012's Best Mysteries, Mean Girls Rule, or Romantic Reads From Shakespeare To Steampunk (Heavy On The Steam), or even 10 Books To Help You Recover From A Tense 2012. That's not exactly dry and humorless, wouldn't you agree? And it's NPR, so you know you'll learn something when you read one of their articles.
A commenter noted the other day that I should include things like pictures and videos to the blog to make it more lively and although I can't imagine changing it very much because "very much" makes me think of oversized sparkly rainbows dancing across the page and dizzying GIFs I have been thinking about adding a little bit more excitement. So here I was, trying to find the clip from Big Bang Theory where Bernadette talks about listening to NPR because that scene is hilarious and sadly couldn't. Plans foiled! Maybe next time.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review: Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky

Meeting an anonymous client late on a sizzling summer night is asking for trouble. But trouble is Chicago private eye V. I. Warshawski’s specialty. Her client says he’s the prominent banker John Thayer. Turns out he’s not. He says his son’s girlfriend, Anita Hill, is missing. Turns out that’s not her real name. V. I.’s search turns up someone soon enough—the real John Thayer’s son, and he’s dead. Who’s V. I.’s client? Why has she been set up and sent out on a wild-goose chase? By the time she’s got it figured, things are hotter — and deadlier — than Chicago in July. V. I.’s in a desperate race against time. At stake: a young woman’s life.

2012 marks the 30 year anniversary of the first publication of Sara Paretsky's debut novel and after listening to the BBC World Book Club program where she was the guest I decided to pick it up.
You can definitely see that Indemnity Only is a debut novel. There is the minute detail often present in authors' first works, from what exactly their characters wore to what they ate. There are inconsistencies in quantities of family heirlooms and thorough accounts of habits and routines. Things like this could do a book in if there is enough of them and not enough of what keeps the reader turning the pages and rooting for the protagonist. In Paretsky's case the balance was in her favor and she went on to write 14 more V.I. Warshawski novels.
So what was it that tipped the scales? For me it was the characters, the setting and that none of it got lost in those details. V.I., Vic to friends, is a badass with a soft underbelly. She knows martial arts, runs a 7.5 minute mile and isn't afraid to use her fists when the circumstances call for it, she'll help those in need with a complete disregard for her own safety or bottom line. She bristles when anyone questions her choice of profession or competence because she is a woman, but is realistic about her chances against a strong male opponent in single combat. In short V.I. Warshawski is a believable and relatable female character who is just as relevant today as she was 30 years ago, even if her environment is definitely outdated. She actually reminds me of Maria Bello's character in last year's Prime Suspect, I think Vic and Jane would get along.
Secondary characters easily hold their own, even though they don't have quite as much time on the page and more often than not we don't know what they're wearing. I can't decide if my favorite is Lotty of McGraw, a spitfire doctor unfazed by any surprise or a conflicted man comparing himself to King Midas. Or maybe it's Bobby Mallory, who keeps trying to protect his friend's daughter and nearly blows a gasket every time she won't let him.
Another thing to Paretsky's advantage is her ability to establish a sense of the world in which V.I. operates. The book is filled with social issues of the day - women's movement, tensions between the radically-inclined and the police, the divide between classes and the lack of acceptance of those who aren't of the same ancestry across all levels of society. With Vic being firmly working class and not particularly fond of the rich it would have been easy to make her just one of the not-too-priviledged and be done with it, but Paretsky makes her straddle the line in a way. Vic judges people by their actions, not their wealth or position, regardless of where they stand on social issues or how unpopular her opinion. It's clear of course that she is rooting for the little guy, just as Paretsky is, and it's no surprise that it's the working class characters who are the more sympathetic ones, but Warshawski isn't blindly prejudiced and justice and truth are her goals every step of the way. All this makes the story resonate more, makes it more personal, makes one think about how much the world has changed in the last 30 years and how much it hasn't.
I read some V.I. Warshawski novels when I was in high school and remember enjoying them enough to blow through a half-dozen paperbacks in a couple of weeks, but I don't remember particularly noticing the elements that impressed me most this time around. Maybe I should revisit Warshawski before too much time passes, watch her catch some bad guys and learn something about the past while I'm at it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Study Time in Westminster, Colorado

Hyland Hills Golf Course in Westminster is home to a little girl too busy reading to look around (I'm betting you know how that is). She is the work of Randolph Rose Collection Artists and is a gift of family and friends of Vickie Landgraf and Don Ciancio to the park.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Review: Quiet by Susan Cain

This book is a look at introversion and extraversion from a cultural point of view, an examination of what it means to be one in today's world, how we got here, and how to make our natural temperaments work for us as opposed to against us. It has the power to permanently change how we see introverts and, equally important, how introverts see themselves.

Whenever conversation lands on the subject of what kind of child I was my dad likes to tell the story of friends coming to ask me to go play with them and me declining in favor of reading a book. My grandmother says she could leave me to play with a cup of mixed beans and I would be happily occupied for an hour grouping them by color, shape, size or number of spots (this usually preceding or following accounts of my cousin turning the whole house upside down within minutes). I was a quiet child, as you can see, with clear signs of introversion from a young age. I never really grew out of it either, still hesitating to accept party invitations and perfectly content to spend my time in the company of one or two friends, or in quiet pursuits. When I first saw Big Bang Theory on TV I was so delighted, because although I'm not a Trekkie or a scientist in a lot of ways the guys on that show are my people. So it's no wonder that I would be compelled to seek out a book on introversion.
I am usually not a fan of nonfiction. These books tend to lose my interest relatively quickly and no matter how curious I am about the subject if the book isn't done in a style more populistic than academic I have to force myself to concentrate. So when I opened Quiet for the first time I braced myself for a laborious experience. Imagine my surprise and pleasure when Susan Cain started the book with an anecdote, signaling that it was going to be about people, not abstract concepts. Anecdotes like the one in the first chapter kept the book going for me, alternating stories about historical figures such as Rosa Parks, Dale Carnegie and Eleanor Roosevelt with stories about people Ms. Cain met in the course of her research. These stories provided the reprieve needed to keep the academic sections about studies and the science of it all from taking over, as well as an insight into the making of our high-energy environment.
One of the beauties of this book is the fact that it examines introversion and extraversion from a variety of angles, taking into account the significance of nature and nurture, societal norms and situational pressures, ability and desire to adapt and mimic traits necessary to succeed. It talks about introversion and extraversion at all stages of development, from childhood to old age, describing second-grader Isabel and the author's own grandfather as examples. It takes a look at how cultures affect temperaments of the majority, discussing differences between Asia and Europe and challenges people of both descents face. Best of all, it does all this in a language that is easy to understand.
It still took me a week to read Quiet because of the sheer amount and quality of the information. I would turn off my e-reader with thoughts and ideas clamoring for my attention, my mind trying to process everything I've just read at the same time. It's not a particularly exciting book, in the usual sense, but I was extremely excited to read it, sometimes for the validation it provided and sometimes for ideas on how to make it in a world where it literally pays to speak up, and loudly, without wearing myself out trying to be a polar opposite of who I am. I'm still excited about it and I think that everyone should read this book, regardless of temperament. After all, at least a third of us are introverts, and it's time we started really paying attention to and harnessing the power of quiet.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Strand Bookstore

My vacation has been over for more than two weeks now but New York is still on my mind, I keep thinking about the things I've seen and the places I've visited. It also seems to follow me - a book came in the mail from a fellow PaperBack Swap member and it was wrapped in a bag from the Strand Bookstore. Of course I couldn't resist visiting their website.
Strand looks like a magical place and the store's site only makes me want to visit it more. This family-run business sells new and used books, has a magnificent rare and first editions room, as well as world's largest art department. Browsing the site I was amazed by the similarities in the titles on various authors' lists in their Author's Bookshelf section and that this is the store where characters of some movies I enjoyed immensely went to look for new reads(check out the pictures in their Photos section).
I know I've only just come back, but I'm already thinking about what I would do in New York on my next visit. The Strand is on the list for sure.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review: Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod

When Hugh MacLeod was a struggling young copywriter, living in a YMCA, he started to doodle on the backs of business cards while sitting at a bar. Those cartoons eventually led to a popular blog - - and a reputation for pithy insight and humor, in both words and pictures. MacLeod has opinions on everything from marketing to the meaning of life, but one of his main subjects is creativity. How do new ideas emerge in a cynical, risk-averse world? Where does inspiration come from? What does it take to make a living as a creative person? Now his first book, Ignore Everyone, expands on his sharpest insights, wittiest cartoons, and most useful advice.

In a way I really enjoyed this book - there is a certain freshness in the unapologetic way the author talks about things that are generally common sense but may not be popular subjects to discuss with the creative crowd, such as that there will be hard times, or that relying on being "discovered" is foolish, or even that you may never make it big at all. He calls out those who waste their lives in meaningless bill-pay jobs while waiting for the big break in whatever their creative outlet is, and those who he dubs Watercoolies: the chronic complainers with stagnant careers.
There are anecdotes from MacLeod's life that illustrate the point of every chapter and there are his business card cartoons that either drive that point home, entertain, or give more food for thought. These make the already short book a fast and easy read that avoids being stuffy or preachy or even overly serious while talking about a subject that's very serious for a lot of people.
With all that said by the time I got to the 40th tip I felt that the book was much too long, that some of the tips were essentially the same and could have been combined without doing the book any harm. I even went through the chapter titles trying to remember which stories went with them and found that a few were interchangeable.
This is a decent read, especially if you want a fresh shot of motivation or to switch gears. It is also a great reminder that not every creative endeavor needs to rival the work of Beethoven, Da Vinci, Rowling or Jobs, it simply has to be yours.